The construction and built environment diploma is to be launched this September, and the industry is working well with colleges to expand its reach. But how do we make sure it succeeds?

In just over four months, in September, the first students on the construction and built environment diploma will be embarking on their courses.

Since my column in Building on 31 August last year, the industry and educational institutions have responded and 44 consortiums, made of partnerships of schools, colleges, training providers and employers, have worked hard to formulate the diploma. As a result they will offer about 4,000 student places this year. The government also announced last month that a further 8,332 diploma places would be available from September 2009, involving another 86 consortiums around the country.

Industry is coming on board. To ensure that the diploma will be practical and interesting to students, schools, parents, and also to employers, ConstructionSkills set up an employer engagement group. It includes several major firms such as Kier, Wates, GJ Seddon and Balfour Beatty, as well as employers from other built environment sector skills councils’ footprints, such as AssetSkills and SummitSkills. In February and March this year, ConstructionSkills held seven regional events across the country, in London, Newcastle and Altrincham among other places, and three more are in play. These meetings seek feedback on how the diploma and its delivery are being developed, and try to encourage more firms to join the consortiums.

The growing interest from higher education is important. The diploma was developed in consultation with a working group from professional institutions and universities, including Salford, Kent, Bristol and Newcastle. These universities already back the diplomas, which they see as excellent preparation for a degree course.

Added to this, last month the government announced an extended diploma from 2011. This will be divided into three sections: the foundation diploma, which will be equivalent to seven GCSEs, Grade A* to G; the higher diploma, worth nine GCSEs, Grade A* to C; and the advanced diploma, equivalent to four-and-a-half A levels. This extended diploma will have extra challenges in English and maths, with an additional and specialist learning block. The new provision is a firm response to those – and there are still plenty of them, especially in the teaching professions – who consider that diplomas are for less academic pupils. And the extended diploma will be more testing than the ordinary diploma, which involves five GCSEs at foundation level, seven at higher and three-and-a-half A levels at advanced.

All employers will want to know how the diploma will affect the bottom line. How will taking on a diploma student benefit them?

What more needs to be done? Last month, 40 representatives from sector skills councils and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board held a discussion in London to try to enlist more support from employers. The speakers were Sir Alan Jones, chairman of the skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing, and the government’s diploma champion for employers, Simon Bartley, chairman of SummitSkills, and myself. Most of the time was given over to discussions around five tables, with a separate question for each to address and report back on later.

My table looked at how employers could engage with schools and colleges to try to remove barriers to progress. We identified several possibilities. Two were particularly pertinent to industry involvement.

The first was that all employers, especially SMEs, will want to know how the diploma will affect their bottom lines. How would their firm benefit from taking on a diploma student? As well as preparing someone for work in the sector, the diploma teaches skills specific to the needs of the industry and enables employers to shape the knowledge acquired by future recruits.

The second is how clients will react. If they insist on training as part of a contractual framework arrangement, and link the diploma to that in appointing contractors or consultants, it would send a clear message to the construction supply chain. The industry would respond en masse. The government’s own recent commitment to investigating the potential to provide apprenticeship places through its large projects – such as the Olympics, Crossrail and the Building Schools for the Future programme – has set the right tone and could pave the way for new diploma students. As the construction industry’s biggest client, it is vital that the government send a clear message to firms in the sector, and we are now beginning to see foundations laid that will guarantee the future of a world-class construction workforce.